New chief of S'pore guide dogs group has big plans

New chief of S'pore guide dogs group has big plans
Guide Dogs Association of the Blind chairman Amos Miller, who is blind, with his guide dog Trevor.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Even with a guide dog or cane, it is a struggle for a blind person to make out the world beyond a few metres ahead.

Imagine if one day, the 285 million people with visual impairment worldwide could orientate themselves and move around independently, even on unfamiliar routes.

As the blind person walks down the pavement, a loud sound coming from his left tells him there is a bus stop nearby. Another distant sound from the right indicates there is a cinema 200m away.

Such a scenario may soon become reality as tech giant Microsoft develops technology that uses sensors placed in the environment to create a rich three-dimensional soundscape to help blind people move around more confidently.

And Singapore could be the first overseas test bed for this pilot project if Mr Amos Miller, the new chairman of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind (GDAB), has his way. "We have the data and connectivity systems in place here and because it is also a constrained geographical space, I am hoping for it to be tested here as we pioneer the future of mobility services," said Mr Miller.

The 43-year-old Briton, who is blind and has a guide dog named Trevor, was one of the key brains behind this project when it was piloted two years ago in Britain.

He was then leading Microsoft's enterprise strategy public sector business there and was head of Guide Dogs UK.

But work brought him to Singapore in late 2013, with his South Korean wife and nine-year-old daughter. He got in touch with the local guide dogs charity here and was elected as its new chief last month, becoming the association's first blind chairman.

Dr Francis Seow Choen, GDAB's chairman for the last 10 years, said of Mr Miller: "He is well placed to take the group forward because previously he was the chairman of Guide Dogs UK, the largest guide dog association in the world.

"So he has the experience, contacts and ideas to help the association grow."

Mr Miller said he steered Guide Dogs UK from being a "dog charity" to a "mobility charity" that focused on meeting the needs and aspirations of the blind person, rather than one that simply ran guide dog training centres.

The charity, which has an annual turnover of £70 million (S$151.6 million), began to offer new services, such as training children who are visually impaired to orientate themselves outdoors so that they would get out of the house more often.

"I also believed in tapping into technology and human ingenuity to meaningfully change the experience for blind people," said Mr Miller, who now leads Microsoft's strategic consulting business in Asia.

His expertise in information technology and software development came in handy for the pilot project, where blind people wore earphones that transmit sounds and verbal navigation cues directly into the inner ear.

Sensors were placed on key landmarks along the 56km test route, from a house in Reading to Paddington station in London.

Using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, these external beacons sent a wide variety of sounds and information - such as Global Positioning System navigation and orientation, real-time bus and train arrivals and details about historical points of interest - to the headsets.

Visually impaired volunteers reported feeling more confident and connected to their surroundings, according to Mr Miller.

"By layering audio cues onto the physical space around them, we can light up their world with sound and somehow colour that image in their mind's eye," he added.

Mr Miller was diagnosed with a genetic eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa when he was five.

Though he could still see when he was growing up, his eyesight deteriorated. He lost it completely when he graduated from university.

He recounted a personal experience to illustrate the immense untapped potential of people who are blind, should they be equipped with sufficient environmental cues. Two years ago, a friend invited him to fly a glider in England.

"Obviously I can't see, so the pilot guided me to pull the lever a bit to the left and a bit to the right, but I lost control and we went on a downward spiral," said Mr Miller.

The next day, instead of receiving instructions, he asked the pilot to describe the condition of the plane, whether it was leaning 10 degrees to the right or tilting 20 degrees to the left.

With other sensory information - from the movement of the plane to the sound of the wind - he pictured his environment and made the relevant adjustments, keeping the plane gliding straight for a full five minutes.

It is this sense of awareness and empowerment that Mr Miller hopes to bring to the blind community here. He hopes to raise the number of people using guide dogs, from seven now to about 30 or 40 in the next few years.

There are about 4,000 people who are visually impaired in Singapore. In the past, it was hard to get a guide dog because potential owners had to travel overseas to be trained with the dog, under the supervision of an instructor.

The association now has an accredited guide dog mobility instructor to help new guide dog owners.

Mr Miller also hopes to collaborate more closely with other partners such as hospitals, employers and businesses to provide support for blind people.

"I hope society will be conducive for the visually impaired to feel empowered enough to pursue their dreams, and the foundation of that is independence and mobility."

This article was first published on Sept 28, 2015.
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